Monday, 29 August 2016

The Cruel Sea

Bas ya bahar; drama, Kuwait, 1972; D: Khalid Al Siddiq, S: Mohammed Al-Mansour, Saad Al-Faraj, Hayat Al-Fahad, Amal Bakr

Kuwait before the oil industry. Moussaed is in love with Nura, but since he is unemployed, he has no money to propose her. In order to pay for her dowry, he decides to go on a ship to dive for pearls, even despite major opposition from his father, who once wanted to find a pearl himself, but was disabled after getting scarred by a shark. Once in the open sea, the crew dive in deep waters for pearls. However, Nura's father enagages her for a rich man, while Moussaed's hand gets stuck between two rocks, and he thus dies in the sea.

The first feature length film in the history of cinema of Kuwait, Khalid Al Siddiq's "The Cruel Sea" is a sad contemplation about the fragile state of life by depicting a timeless "Icarus" tale about a lad who wants to escape from his miserable fate by risking for something greater, but precisely when he is the closest to his goal, he is also the closest to his death. Al Siddiq directs the film with a raw, callow style reminiscent of Italian neorealism in order to authentically depict the life, culture and mentality of the people (for instance, the people gather at the coast and dip a cat in the water for a few seconds, and after it meows, they conclude that the ships will all return safely), even using some more daring and unusual methods, like the fish-eye wide angle lens at a couple of scenes, or flashbacks that effectively conjure up the emotions of the father, who was crippled when he tried to find a pearl in the sea for his wife, and thus does not want his child to suffer the same fate. The film suffers from a very slow pace, especially in the overlong 10-minute wedding sequence, which depletes the concentration of the viewers, but still has some timeless wisdom about people who cannot escape their limitations, no matter how much they try, perfectly embodied in the wide angle scene where the father is looking at the massive sea in the background, a symbol for the leitmotive of eternal nature-fate and man's futility and insignifiance in trying to change it. A minimalistic, spiritual film, especially elegant in the sequences of the ship in the middle of the sea, showing good character development between the skipper and Moussaed.

Grade;++

Sunday, 28 August 2016

Flight of Fury

Flight of Fury; action, USA, 2007; D: Michael Keusch, S: Steven Seagal, Steve Toussaint, Angus Macinnes

Air Force pilot Sands escapes from a military prison during surgery. He is caught after perventing a store robbery, but given a second chance by the military: namely, a new high-tech Air Force Stealth plane, capable of becoming invisible, has been stolen by its own test pilot Ratcher, who handed it over to some Arab paramilitary in the Middle East, and Sands has to get it back - or else the US military will simply bomb the hangar with the Stealth plane. Sands storms the hangar, kills everyone, saves colleague Jannick and then uses the Stealth plane to shoot Ratcher who tries to escape in an F-16.

"Flight of Fury" is one of those terrible action movies after which you have to watch "Citizen Kane" and "Casablanca" for cinematic disinfection. Quite frankly, there is simply not much to write here: it follows several typical cliches of action films from the 80s and 90s (the hero, a convict, is given a chance to clear his name and has a limited amount of time to perform a secret operation), except here in a far more banal, humorless, inept and trashy edition, exacerbated further by Steven Seagal's arrogant acting and ignorant writing. The opening sequence is ludicrous (why would the personnel of a military prison let a janitor clean the floor of a nearby cell, just when Sands is being interrogated and about to be sedated?), though "Flight" is not even unintentionally comical after that: it is just plain boring. It has boring scenes, boring dialogues, boring events..., all adding to one monotone film without any sense to live it up or escape from this grey area of preditctable routine we are accustomed to in so many other action films. Having to sit through these 90 minutes of dated macho primitivism is just plain a drag. Not even the finale where Sands and Ratcher are flying in a Stealth and a F-16 plane works, since they are never in the same shot (except in one quick scene), and thus the viewers do not know who is chasing whom or how they are interacting, since the two planes might as well be at two separate points in the world. The sad thing is that one woman, the villain who will be killed, is a lesbian, as well, giving the film even a touch of homophobia to it, as if its creativity-phobia was not already enough.

Grade;-

Thursday, 25 August 2016

Princess Tutu

Princess Tutu; animated fantasy series, Japan, 2002; D: Junichi Sato, S: Nanae Katou, Nana Mizuki, Naoki Yanagi, Takahiro Sakurai

A duck falls in love with a prince, Mytho, and is suddenly transformed into a girl, Ahiru, given an assignment to live in the town as a ballet student, with he ability to transform further still into a girl with magical powers, Princess Tutu, who can defeat evil forces through dancing and thereby return the fragments of Mytho's heart. Also, Ahiru can turn back into the duck whenever she says "quack", and back into human when she plunges into water. It turns out she was given that assignment by Drosselmeyer, a man who had the ability to make his stories come to life, and was thus cut off his hands because the townspeople were afraid of his stories. After his death, he continued writing the story about the raven and the prince, who were fighting in the town. However, Mytho's friend, Fakir, finds out he is Drosselmeyer's descendant, and tries to overwrite the tragic story into a happy ending. He succeeds, and allows Mytho to fall in love with Rue, raven's daughter. Ahiru turns back into a duck.

"Princess Tutu", a very unorthodox take at the 'magical girl' subgenre, is an anime that had potenital to be much more than it ultimately turned out to be. The story-within-a-story setting is outstandingly clever, presenting a concept where the girl Ahiru finds out she is just a character that came to life in a story set in a small, Baroque European town written by author Drosselmeyer, and thus this 'breaking-the-forth-wall' storyline is indeed at times reminiscent of "Sophie's World", as well as the '91 fantasy comedy "Delirious" - except that "Princess Tutu" unfortunately takes up too much time developing the less interesting story (the bland interaction between Ahiru and prince Mytho is standard) instead of obviously going for the more 'juicy' one ("supreme author" Drosselmeyer is just a supporting character who hardly ever appears in the story), and thus feel disproportionately assembled. Translating it into "Delirious", it would be as if the movie would play out only about the soap opera characters 90% of the time, and would barely even mention Candy's character who is the author who found himself in his own TV show. The 1st episode is excellent (the great joke where the teacher, an anthrophomorphic cat, is threatening his girl students that he will punish them by marrying the one who is the worst in ballet class, which prompts everyone to put more effort into it; the melancholic closing song where the duck dreamed of becoming a human to be with prince Mytho), but, sadly, that energy is never repeated all the way until the great finale starting from episode 22, which means that all those 20 episodes in the middle are solid, though full of empty walk, uninteresting moments and repetitive elements (the decision to repeat the same joke of teacher's threat of marrying the disobedient students over a dozen times (!) causes this gag to turn exhaustingly tiresome, to the point of ad nauseam).

For a 26 episode series, this is too much of 'filler' - if at least the fillers were fun or colorful, but they are mostly bland. Ahiru's class friends Pike and Lilie are insufficiently interesting, whereas her sole transformation into Princess Tutu to use dance to defeat the evil forces is rather thin (for instance, in one banal episode, Mytho is locked inside a restaurant by a woman who wants to spoil him with too much food, and thus Tutu "cleanses" her with her dance). We are also being told what to think about the relationships of the characters, instead of being shown how they interact. All this could have been skipped since the finale is the only part that pays off, since "Tutu" there finally 'twitches' from this grey routine and offers a few philosophical questions regarding free will and refusing to accept your role in the world (in one episode near the end, Fakir finds out he also has the ability to make the stories come to life, so he refuses to follow Drosselmeyer's command and stabs his own hand while he was writing a dark ending for Ahiru on paper; in another, one lad falls in love with Rue, but wonders if all this is also not just part of the story and if it is truly his own feeling), yet it is a major pity that the climatic duel was between Ahiru and the raven monster, and not between Ahiru and Drosselmeyer - such a clash between an author who pulls the strings and his creation would have been far more satisfaying and logical. Overall, "Princess Tutu" is an opulent and touching fairy tale, but only at the beginning and the end, and even that end could have been even more daring.

Grade;++

Bad Taste

Bad Taste; horror comedy, New Zealand, 1987; D: Peter Jackson, S: Peter Jackson, Terry Potter, Pete O'Herne, Mike Minett

A mysterious phone call for help is received from a small town named Kaihoro, saying they were attacked by aliens. The Astro Investigation and Defense Service (AIDS) thus sends a five man team to counter the aliens. They discover the 75 inhabitants of Kaihoro are gone, and replaced with aliens disguised as ordinary humans in blue shirts. Derek captures one man suspecting to be an alien and leaves him hanging from a cliff. He later has to use a machine gun to fight against alien henchman. Upon discovering the aliens want to use human flesh for their fast food chain, Derek, Ozzy, Barry, Frank and Giles start a siege of a house where the aliens finally transform to their original state. An alien escapes in the flying house into space, but is killed by Derek anyway.

A blast from the Southern Hemisphere, Peter Jackson's independent feature length debut film "Bad Taste" is the greatest trash film of the 80s, a self-consciously ironic jab at itself that self-consciously knows it is a B-film, obvious already in its title, and does everything out of that situation. It has violence and gore, yet it is nowhere near as intolerable as Jackson's later hard-core "Braindead" splatter-excess, and thus far more watchable, whereas the effects and props are so cheap and fake it is difficult to get offended by them, anyway. Despite its limitations, it is remarkable with what kind of audacity Jackson films his events regardless of how low his budget is, yet he already displayed a sixth sense in ingenuity since several moments reveal that they were truly directed (the legendary sequence where Derek keeps a man hanging from a cliff near the coast, trying to make him admit he is an alien, is not only dazzling for its panorama shot, but also for the fact that both characters are played by Peter Jackson himself - one with a beard, the other without a beard, wearing glasses, indicating meticulous planning and editing), whereas some jokes are just plain deliciously innocent or clever ("We have to protect Earth from the aliens!", says one team member, upon the other just has to add: "And the Moon, too!"; Derek drives a blue van with cutouts from the Beatles in the front seats; upon hearing that Derek fell and died from the cliff, the team members comment with: "Poor Derek... Birds were the only thing he could relate to...", while the camera cuts to seagulls gathering to eat the remains of Derek on the cliff), whereas at least one expressionistic sequence is genius, the one where the house in space is passing by Saturn, proving to be one of the most bizarre forms of alien transportation ever. In numerous other instances, this film wouldn't have worked and may have turned into a disaster, yet it sends a vibe as if Jackson felt he was living in the middle of nowhere, where nothing was happening, and thus decided to make something unbelievable out of a protest against the routine, no matter what form it took, and this spark of rebellion carries the entire film.

Grade;+++

Tuesday, 23 August 2016

Urban Justice

Urban Justice; action, USA, 2007; D: Don E. Fauntleroy, S: Steven Seagal, Eddie Griffin, Carmen Serano, Cory Hart, Liezl Carstens, Danny Trejo

Police officer Max Ballister is killed on the streets on Los Angeles near his home. After the funeral, his father Simon decides to find his killer. Simon rents a shady room in the L.A. suburb known for violent gang wars, and starts questioning people, even thugs, in order to get some information. It turns out that the order was given by police official Shaw, who works together with gangster Armand in order to smuggle drugs into town. Simon kills Shaw in the finale, and lets Armand go since he "doesn't have any beef with him".

Viewers familiar with the types of movies Steven Seagal stands for - a symbol of inferior intellectual, philosophical or creative range, relying only on brute force - will be pleasantly surprised that his film "Urban Justice" miraculously turned out tolerable for a change. A lot of credit for that should be given to director Don E. Fauntleroy who refused to make it typically too serious, i. e. banal or trashy, and instead inserted a few comical-ironic moments that elevate the level of the story here and there (in one sequence, one woman asks Seagal's character, Simon, where he was taught how to fight with thugs on the street, and he jokingly replies that he was "taught all that on home video"), though the supporting cast easily overshadows Seagal, anyway, from the opening scenes where Max's wife is riding on his back and doesn't want him to go to work, up to the stand-out role by Eddie Griffin as the nutty gangster Armand (in the finale, he meets an African-American gangster from the East Side dressed in a completely white suit, and cannot resist but to ask: "Why did you come here dressed up as a tampon?!"). Unfortunately, the story is still predictably thin, with several typical action cliches contaminating it (dozens of gangsters shoot and always miss Simon, but he always hits them; gangsters aim at Simon's head with the pistol at close range twice, yet he is still somehow able to be faster (?) than them pulling the trigger and catches their hand...) whereas the ending is disappointingly anticlimactic and contains an example of "selective justice", in the end not amounting to much than an easily watchable, easily forgettable flick.

Grade;+

Saturday, 20 August 2016

Rent Control

Rent Control; comedy, USA, 1982; D: Gian Luigi Polidoro, S: Brent Spiner, Elizabeth Stack, Jeanne Ruskin, Kimberly Stern, Annie Korzen, Leonard Melfi

New York. Leonard, a TV writer who is researching to make a show about a French period drama, is forced to live in the apartment of his sister-in-law and other family members after his divorce from Margaret, who moved with their daughter to some Canadian province in the far north. In order to persuade her to come back, or to find a new girlfriend, Leonard tries to find his own apartment in New York, but he is not able to find any affordable one. He meets Milton, a writer who discovered that Senator Hawkins' wife died after an affair with a lawyer, and tries to use that to scare off involved people from their apartments in order to get them for himself. However, Hawkins' driver finds out about this and beats up Leonard. Milton is killed. However, Milton's girlfriend, Anne, allows Leonard to stay at her place.

A moderately fun comedy revolving around the absurdities involving the impossible task of finding an apartment in New York, "Rent Control" runs out of ideas fairly quickly, though it at least is interesting for being an early movie in Brent Spiner's career, here acting as a comedian. "Rent" starts off really well, with several comic moments (when a police officer wants to give them a ticket for parking on the street, Leonard's sister-in-law quickly resorts to calling him "woman-hater" and "Your mother should have gotten a ticket for having you!"; when a friend asks him about his love life after the divorce, Leonard replies with: "Mono-sex"), yet becomes stale, monotone and routine after half an hour, with a very unexciting middle part, as well as an abrupt ending. The movie needed more good jokes, and more 'cool stuff' to edge its way from its overstretched and indecisive tone, yet it is so awkward that it has some almost surreal quality to it, with humor erupting into some of the most unexpected places, such as the riot sequence where Leonard is kidnapped by driver Stronsky and Stan in their car, which leads to one funny dialogue of absurd nervous state ("Stan... That stand for Stanislav, right?" - "Yes." - "Stanislav, the Polish king?" - "I guess..." - "He is Polish, right?" - "I don't know..." - "Polish, like the pope."). A tighter rhythm and a more focused approach would have helped, since the screenplay seems to have been incomplete by the time of shooting, yet it is still overall an easily watchable and moderately amusing little flick, with some probably enjoying it more than the others.

Grade;+

Monday, 15 August 2016

The Miser

L'avare; comedy, France, 1980; D: Louis de Funès, Jean Girault, S: Louis de Funès, Franck Cabot-David, Hervé Bellon, Georges Audoubert, Micheline Boudray, Anne Caudry, Claire Dupray

Harpagon is a magnificent cheapskate, a person who accumulated 10,000 golden coins in a treasure chest, which he buried in his garden. Despite this fortune, he still watches how to save every penny among his servants, and even plans to marry a young girl, Marianne, for money, even though his son, Cleante, is in love with her. He also wants his daughter Elise and Cleante to marry old, but rich people in order to also inherit a lot of money. Harpagon is such a miser that he even orders his cook to make a diner without money for Marianne and her mother, and gets uncritical support from his servant Valere, who only wants to appease him to propose Elise. In order to finally end this charade, Cleante finds and steals the treasure chest and presses Harpagon to allow Elise and Cleante to marry whom they want. Harpagon accepts and gets his money back, while Valere turns out to be the child of a nobleman, and thus proposes Elise.

Louis de Funes' feature length directorial debut and his second penultimate film, "The Miser" is an almost identical adaptation of Moliere's chef-d'œuvre comic play "L'avare", where about 90% of all events and dialogues were taken from it, and can thus be considered successful. The level of absurdity revolving around the theme of greed reaching comic proportions are very fun, and thus those who did not read Moliere's grand literary satire will enjoy it, since de Funes is brilliantly picked as the embodiment of a cheapskate and a slave of money: it is rare to have a film where de Funes' immense antics are actually given a run for their money and topped by even more hilarious dialogues. Fast, dynamic, very correct, balanced, clever, benign, wonderfully simple and magnificently comical, "The Miser" gives a great visual case study on greed and excessive behavior of it, exploiting the premise to the maximum.

Already in the opening act, where the protagonist Harpagon is praying on the bench in church, but "discretely" moves away to the other side as soon as the church assistant shows up to pick up donations, the movie instantly sets up a witty premise, and just continues to grow exponentially with insane dialogues: Harpagon attacks his son for dressing too expensively, lamenting how his wardrobe would be "enough for a pension"; the cook giving a marathon collection of rumors to Harpagon ("The people say the darnedest stories about your cheapskate nature. One said that you published calendars with double Easter and Assumption of Mary days so that your servants would fast twice as long! Other said that you sued the neighbor because his cat used your garden without paying. Another one said you were caught at night stealing porridge from your own horse!") or when Harpagon orders his daughter to marry a 50-year old man because the latter "has no kids and thus they won't withdraw money from him". Occasionally, it is weird that Harpagon looks into the camera while talking to himself, trying to adapt Moliere's frequent monologues to the screen, yet even that can be seen as 'breaking-the-fourth-wall'.

Grade;+++

Sunday, 14 August 2016

Spotlight

Spotlight; drama, USA, 2015; D: Todd McCarthy, S: Michael Keaton, Mark Ruffalo, Rachel McAdams, Liev Schreiber, John Slattery, Stanley Tucci

The Boston Globe is slowly declining, with numerous staff members leaving for other newspapers. Trying to overturn this trend, the new editor Marty gives the "Spotlight" team a new assignment: to investigate the accusation of paedophilia among the ranks of priests and the church cover-up. The team, consisting out of Robby, Sacha, Michael, Ben and Matt discover that 13 priests were accused of molesting children, but that the church did nothing to stop it, It soon appears that actually 87 priests were involved in unreported cases in the area. 9/11 overshadows their assignment, but the team get back on their job, obtain the suppressed documents and then publish the story in the newspaper.

"Spotlight" was recognized with several awards and nominations, and is an honest and correct biopic about exposing the paedophilia cases around the Boston area, though its 'social issue theme' is more heightened than its own film quality. Such themes should be made into movies, yet as with most political movies, there is not much room for innovation or dazzling style as to not 'interfere' with the delicate topic, and thus it is not very cinematic: "Spotlight" works better as a newspaper article than as a movie, with several sequences of journalist investigation ending up almost as schematic and grey as some Power-Point presentation. Luckily, the level 'twitches' from that state and ignites somewhat more in the second half, starting from a very intriguing scene in the office, where the editor asks the two reporters how much longer it will take for them to finally publish the story, upon which Robby (great Michael Keaton) uncomfortably shrugs, says: "Too long" and then simply walks out. Robby, Marty and Michael are the only characters who are at least somewhat portrayed, while Sacha, Ben and Matt are just presented as mere extras, and thus this one-dimensional approach at characters makes the whole film somewhat restrained and bellow of what it could have been, given the ambitious setting. Overall, a good, though standard investigative drama, that does not have that ingenuity or suspense of its role model, Pakula's classic "All the President's Men".

Grade;++

Saturday, 13 August 2016

I Often Think of Piroshka

Ich denke oft an Piroschka; romance, Germany / Hungary, 1955; D: Kurt Hoffmann, S: Liselotte Pulver, Gunnar Möller, Wera Frydtberg

In 1955, writer Andreas is driving in a train and remembers his events 30 years ago: in '25, Andreas is a student who travels from Germany to the Balaton lake in Hungary. He meets a German girl, Greta, but they are separated before they can build up their relationship. Andreas travels to a village and stays in the house of a train stationmaster, where he meets a cheerful Hungarian girl, Piroshka, and they fall in love. When Andreas gets a letter from Greta, he travels to her, and is followed by Piroshka, which causes an awkward encounter. Piroshka leaves disappointed, and Andreas returns to the village, and unsuccessfully tries to meet her again. As he leaves in the train, Piroshka stops the train and they kiss.

During its premiere, Kurt Hoffmann's humorous romance "I Often Think of Piroshka" became one of the most popular German films of the 50s, and was subsequently rerun on German TV a thousand times, though by today's standards it has not aged well and feels too thin and lax. Hoffmann gave a twist to the popular German Heimatfilm subgenre by setting it on a location outside Germany, in Hungary, yet keeping several of its trademarks, such as landscapes of nature and good people the viewers can relate to. Unfortunately, the simplistic storyline has too much empty walk, bland, dull or arbitrary moments, because, even though it starts off good, nostalgic and romantic, it slowly oozes off into routine since the movie cannot be carried by only Andreas and Piroshka walking across the meadow or dancing all the time. A little more interaction between the couple, a little more humor or charm, a little more ingenuity would have been more convincing and decisive in a more positive outlook on the film, instead of just relaying on them just being there and giving an incomplete ending. One of the rare examples when the characters engage more is when Andreas secretly goes to visit Greta in her hotel, but is surprised when he finds out Piroshka followed him as well - the interaction between the three of them gives them more dynamic for a moment, especially since Greta wears fancy clothes, while Piroshka wears a peasants' skirts and is soaked from the rain, hinting at how they are from two different worlds. The main highlight is the main actress, Liselotte Pulver, who is so charming, sweet and innocent that she manages to carry 90% of the film - actually, she is so great in this, one wishes the movie was better just for her, as well.

Grade;+

Wednesday, 10 August 2016

The Man Who Laughs

The Man Who Laughs; silent drama, USA, 1928; D: Paul Leni, S: Conrad Veidt, Mary Philbin, Brandon Hurst, Olga Vladimirovna Baklanova

England, 17th century. Because he refused to kiss the hand of tyrannical king James II, a nobleman is sentenced to death, while his son, Gwynplaine, is punished by having a permanent smile carved on his lips. Gwynplaine escapes and finds a blind baby, Dea, in the snow storm. Ursus takes pity in them and raises them. As grown ups, Gwynplaine performs as "the man who laughs" in the circus, since the audience is amused by his permanent smile. The blind Dea doesn't mind and is in love with him. Duchess Josiana is aroused by Gwynplaine's bizarre face, yet is surprised when Queen Anne finds out he is of noble heritage, and thus demands that he marries Josiana, who is running his late father's estate. Gwynplaine refuses and escapes. He gets reunited with Dea in a sailing ship.

Due to its bitter and pessimistic tone regarding two people who are scared by life, Victor Hugo's novel "The Man Who Laughs" was rarely adapted to the big screens, and thus Paul Leni's eponymous 1928 movie is a brave exception to that rule. Leni stays mostly true to the tone of the dark story, depicting how Gwynplaine, with a carved up, permanent smile on his face, and his blind beloved Dea are two tragic characters living on a thread, grotesquely outcast by cruel society, yet still have the courage to live on. However, overall, not much was achieved out of this premise, since it relies too much on melodrama or banal situations, mostly exhausting itself only on the dilemma that people are angry at the protagonist because he "smiles" during the most inappropriate situations, and is thus flat, rarely truly rising to the occasion. It lacks highlights, and the main tangle is not quite congruent with the first act. Leni depicts the storyline in a straight-forward, albeit standard manner, whereas the most was achieved out of the main actor, Conrad Veidt, who manages to retain his smile throughout the film, even during situations when he is obviously hurt, making his expressionistic persona allegedly an inspiration for "Batman's" Joker.

Grade;++